This second article in NCJFCJ’s Teen Dating Violence series is authored by Alex Cardenas, the Executive Director of CASA in Imperial County and Mayor of El Centro, California.
The most effective response to teen dating violence occurs when the entire community responds with one voice to support survivors, ensure accountability for the abuser and protect the teen survivor. In domestic violence parlance we call this method a community collaborative system (CCS). A CCS integrates government, private and nonprofit organizations in a common goal of effectively responding to teen dating violence. In these partnerships when a teen survivor discloses abuse, they hear a consistent message of support regardless of to whom or when they decide to disclose. Social workers, CASA`s, law enforcement, faith leaders, teachers and judges work closely to build a survivors trust in the system, and improve the chances of successful intervention. CCS’s also ensure that organizations in the community are aware of available resources and can make timely and meaningful referrals. Most importantly, a CCS ensures that survivors and their families do not talk to resource after resource searching for the help they need.
In Imperial County, we are fond of saying that our “… greatest asset when working with youth is the ability to build community collaboration across all levels.” This powerful collaborative ethos allows the juvenile system to rely on formal and informal collaborative relationships to help teen survivors of dating violence. Although the leadership in our community clearly comes from the bench, the court ties together the close knit community of stakeholders including CASA’s (both state and tribal), dependency attorneys, law enforcement, child protective services and mental health service providers. This partnership is supported by Local Superior Court Judges Hon. Juan Ulloa, and Hon. William D. Quan, who are overwhelmingly concerned about the physical and emotional needs of survivors of teen violence. Notably this sort of judge-led and formal\informal partnership is unique when expediting services to victims of teen violence.
At the heart of this CCS is the idea of creating trusting relationships between CCS actors and youth at risk. Nowhere is this relationship better modeled than with CASA. Trusting relationships provide opportunities for system-involved youth to disclose their many life challenges including abusive relationships. Foster youth victimized by teen dating violence often choose their CASA Advocates as their “first choice” to seek help, find information and disclose victimization. In part, this relationship of trust is built on the many CASA advocates who work in our community, and the close relationship our CASA’s have with their teenage clients. For example, in our community CASA has provided over one hundred community advocates who have been assigned to over four hundred foster children in Imperial County, and the Quechan Tribal Reservation. Together the advocate and foster youth participate in recreational and enrichment outings that include trips to museums, art festivals, movies and other local events. These outings strengthen a relationship founded on trust and security, and identify the CASA as someone who is genuinely concerned with a youth’s life.
Notably, CASA’s also serve as “Officers of the Court” and mandated reporters. When youth disclose abuse, this disclosure is immediately shared with child protective services where the appropriate assessment and services can be provided.  A mandated reporter who is a stable role in a teenager’s life, and is also connected with community resources cannot be overstated. For example, when a CASA reports a teenager in an abusive relationship to CPS, Imperial County child protective services will cross-report this situation to local law enforcement. CPS in Imperial County continues to demonstrate great initiative in using cross-reporting protocols to help keep law enforcement informed and part of the collaborative system. Cross-reporting ensures that system partners can seek accountability when foster youth are victimized and also strengthens a teen’s belief that system partners are truly responsive to their needs. Recently, our community collaborative system in Imperial County expanded to include the District Attorney’s Office. This partnership with the local prosecutor helps ensure accountability for abusers of foster teens. It is a mark of pride that foster youth in our community are usually quite adamant to their CASA Advocates about obtaining justice after being victimized. This collaboration between CASA, the court, and the District Attorney helps ensure that re-offending is minimized as a result of prosecution through cross-reporting protocols.
Although CCS systems can operate well in a variety of contexts, they work extremely well in resource limited and rural communities, where partners can build on existing relationships between agencies and community organizations. They also work well with populations where teen dating violence survivors may be system-involved youth. Here in Imperial County, we are proud to say that all of our community partners are extremely passionate about the health and wellness of youth, particularly teens who are survivors of foster teen dating violence. We would encourage communities who are thinking about implementing their own CCS system to learn more about collaboration by visiting the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges website at www.ncjfcj.org.
As a result, the community collaboration in Imperial County, foster teens are receiving the much-needed services to cope with effects of teen violence. Equally important, justice is swift and served to those who victimized foster teens with violence.
Their judicial leadership is supplemental by the efforts of CASA and Imperial County Child Protection Services, which work “hand in hand” in addressing the needs of foster teen survivors.